Bug pits to boutique hotels: take the New Silk Road to Uzbekistan

Calum MacLeod recommends his favourite Central Asian republic

The Bug Pit is still an option in Bukhara. A 6m-deep, vermin-infested hole, this infamous prison welcomed two British visitors in the 19th century, before they came to a grisly end at the hands of the ruthless emir. Or you might prefer the style and comfort of the Emir b&b, whose quiet courtyards give on to bedrooms rich in textiles, or the elegant Lyabi-House Hotel, a muezzin's call from the famous Lyab-i-Hauz pool, where "whitebeards" swap snuff and tall stories on the teabeds of Central Asia's most fabulous city.

The Bug Pit is still an option in Bukhara. A 6m-deep, vermin-infested hole, this infamous prison welcomed two British visitors in the 19th century, before they came to a grisly end at the hands of the ruthless emir. Or you might prefer the style and comfort of the Emir b&b, whose quiet courtyards give on to bedrooms rich in textiles, or the elegant Lyabi-House Hotel, a muezzin's call from the famous Lyab-i-Hauz pool, where "whitebeards" swap snuff and tall stories on the teabeds of Central Asia's most fabulous city.

Bound by sand and snow, fed by meltwater from the Roof of the World, Uzbekistan has always been the most alluring Stan. The oases of Bukhara and Samarkand host the beautiful legacy of Islam, and the graves of doomed players in the Anglo-Russian "Great Game". Yet recent headlines bring more disturbing news. The British ambassador crusades for thousands of religious prisoners rotting in modern-day Bug Pits, while last month suicide bombers struck in the capital Tashkent and Bukhara.

So why even consider visiting? Because Uzbekistan is not just safe but an exhilarating destination. Hibernation is over for this former crossroads of Asia, as new road, rail and air routes cross once forbidden frontiers. And families desperate to reconnect with the world are opening their doors to some of the most charming travel options along the Old Silk Road.

Bukhara the Holy, Muslim pilgrims called it for centuries - so holy that the light shone up from earth, not down from heaven. Bukhara the Boutique rings equally true today. Complete with their own travel agencies, private hotels such as Emir and Lyabi-House mean Central Asia has never been easier to enjoy. Akbar's wife will make you enjoy it. Mastura, or Joy, is our host as we tour the Akbar House, a gem of wooden pillars, alabaster designs and high ceilings. "It is the pride of Bukhara," she purrs. "Nobody has a property like this." Akbar is a genuine enthusiast set free by the fall of the Soviet Union. Their lovely dining hall houses an amazing range of artefacts - from the alms bowls of whirling dervishes to antique Korans that were once bricked up in walls to avoid Soviet censors.

Something else has emerged from hiding. "Who are you? A spy? Why do you want our address?" For me, all Soviet hotel receptionists have blended into one vision of badly dyed hair and barely disguised hostility. A decade ago I came to Uzbekistan to write its first guidebook, and grew to love and hate the state-run Intourist establishments, where high prices guaranteed neither plumbing nor even a smile. Thankfully, as I finish the fifth edition, the traditional warmth of Uzbek hospitality is back in business.

A feast of sightseeing also awaits. At the turn of the 19th century, Bukhara had a mosque for each day of the year, plus 127 madrasah, or Islamic colleges. To explore the many survivors, head up the narrow backstreets where Central Asia comes alive. Dogs bark, goats wander and boys play football in the dust. Stroll under the bubbling cupola of three domed bazaars, through arches high enough for camel caravans laden with silk, spices and news, to the Poi Kalon ensemble, or Pedestal of the Great.

Genghis Khan was dripping with slaughter in 1220 when the immense Kalon Minaret, lighthouse for the ships of the desert, stopped him in his tracks. As the steppe nomad strained his neck upwards, to a dimension unknown in Mongolia, his hat fell off. Kneeling to pick it up, legend records him quietly ordering the minaret spared.

You can climb the dusty citadel Afrosiab that Hollywood will recreate in Oliver Stone's Alexander epic due out this autumn. But fast forward to the local hero. Born with blood-filled palms, a deadly omen, Tamerlane was the last nomadic emperor to shake the world. On the outskirts of Delhi, he massacred 100,000 Hindu prisoners, lest they hamper his progress, before killing an equal number within the city. Condemned as a feudal despot in Soviet times, Tamerlane has been rehabilitated as a national symbol, riding on the 500 sum note (30p, good for a long taxi ride). The Taj Mahal is his best-known legacy, through his Mughal descendants, but Tamerlane's own capital offers equal treasures. Craftsmen and slave levy seized from India to Russia transformed Samarkand into the "Mirror of the World". His monumental buildings, all fluted domes and sky-blue mosaic, still dwarf Soviet efforts nearby.

If you tire of legends, rest at Hotel Malika, or the Légende de Samarcande b&b, the city's first response to Bukhara's boutique challenge. The French name reflects growing Gallic interest. Yet Brits should be here in equal numbers. Back in that Bug Pit, now restored as a museum, was Capt Arthur Connolly, who coined the phrase "the Great Game" for the war of stealth between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire, with India as the goal.

Throughout the 19th century, both sides excited readers with match reports from the exotic and perilous playing fields of Central Asia. The Russians ultimately won; we lost interest, and their Soviet successors carved up Turkestan into five new but subservient Stans. Uzbekistan is still dealing with the trauma of genuine statehood, after independence was thrust upon it in 1991. For a young nation with ancient roots, it has proved difficult to abandon Soviet methods. Yet an American airbase is the latest play in a flurry of international action marking the second leg of the Great Game.

And checking the score is easier than ever. Invitations are no longer required for tourist visas, while British Airways now connects London and Tashkent, where, as Our Man in Tashkent will attest, the nightlife grows ever more daring. Racy floorshows become freak shows - on my last trip, a man skewering his tongue and cheeks stopped the kebab en route to my own mouth. If you have the stomach for real adventure, local travel agencies offer heli-skiing by Soviet chopper, rafting in the Tian Shan, and camel trekking in the vast Red Sands desert.

Last month Kofi Annan announced a "new Silk Road", a UN-sponsored highway network "from Tokyo to Tehran, and from Singapore to Samarkand". Shelved during the Cold War, this will span 32 countries and 87,000 miles, but you don't have to clock that many to reach the highlight. Come to a land without McDonald's. For the Golden Road to Samarkand has never stretched this close.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Calum MacLeod flew to Uzbekistan with British Airways (0870 8509850; www.ba.com), which offers return fares from £530. Voyage Jules Verne (0845 1667000, www.vjv.co.uk) offers a seven-night escorted tour of Uzbekistan. There are regular departures in May, August, September and October with the next departure on 29 May. Prices for the itinerary start from £745 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from London, transfers, b&b, some meals and the services of a guide.

UK citizens are required to obtain a visa to enter the Republic of Uzbekistan. A single-entry 15-day visa costs £41 and a visa valid for one month costs £47. Contact the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan, 41 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 3RP (020-7229 7679; http://uzbekistan.embassy homepage.com).

Where to stay

Forget the Soviet blocks of Intourist hotels and leave your bathplug at home. Charming private hotels, cheap only in price, offer hospitality, tradition and Western bathrooms along the winding alleys of old Bukhara and Samarkand. Boutique in Uzbekistan hardly means New York or Marrakech chic, and some places can be a little ramshackle, but they are stamped with authenticity, and a few Soviet hangovers - like the need to keep registration chits for each night of your stay. Visit before all such kinks are ironed out.

Bukhara: Emir b&b, 17 Nadjab Husainov St (00 998 65 224 4965; www.emirtravel.com). Perhaps the pick of the bunch, this is the lovingly restored former home of a Jewish merchant, with beautiful rooms and clean bathrooms set around three quiet courtyards. From £18-£26 per room per night.

Lyabi-House Hotel, 7 Nadjab Husainov St (00 998 65 224 2484; www.lyabi-house.com). Close to Bukhara's famous hauz, or pool, this 19th-century house has been restored by local craftsmen. From £18-£30 per room per night.

Akbar House & Antiques, 22 Eshoni Pir (00 998 65 22 42 112; email: akbar_house_antiques@hotmail.ru). Pack a phrasebook - it's worth the effort to get to know the owners. There is a beautiful dining hall and a portico. From £10-£25 per room per night.

Amulet Hotel, 73 Nakhshbandi (00 998 65 224 5342; tashrif@bu.uzpak.uz). A designer madrasah, (Islamic college) offering cosy student cells. From £10-£15 per room per night.

Samarkand: Malika Samarkand, 37 Khamraeva St (00 998 66 233 0197) mauzo@rol.uz; www.malika.by.ru). A blend of traditional style and modern comforts. From £12-£25 per room per night.

Légende b&b, 60 Tolmasova St, (00 998 66 235 0543; legend_ guesthouse@ intal.uz). Stylish touches add to this 120-year-old house with balconies and shady teabeds. B&B from £12 per person.

Tashkent: Hotel Intercontinental Tashkent, 107A Amir Temur St (00 998 71 120 7000; www.ichotelsgroup.com). Five stars from just £50 per room per night.

How to get more information

Calum MacLeod and Bradley Mayhew's Uzbekistan: The Golden Road to Samarkand, fifth edition is published by Odyssey Guides in July 2004 (£15.95).

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